Palm Springs International Film Festival 2014
By Don Simpson | January 4, 2014
Director: Yûya Ishii
Writers: Kensaku Watanabe (screenplay), Shiwon Miura (novel)
Starring: Ryûhei Matsuda, Jô Odagiri, Aoi Miyazaki, Go Kato, Kaoru Kobayashi, Kumiko Asô, Chizuru Ikewaki, Hiroko Isayama, Haru Kuroki, Naoki Matayoshi, Ryû Morioka, Kazuki Namioka, Yoshiki Saitô, Shingo Tsurumi, Shôhei Uno, Misako Watanabe, Kaoru Yachigusa
A large publisher’s Dictionary Editorial Department finds itself on the brink of extinction in 1995, as new technologies such as laptops and mobile telephones become more commonplace in everyday households. The Internet is on the verge of explosion and emails are about to replace handwritten letters as the primary form of “written” communication. Prognosticating that the world is about to become very used to communicating, researching and learning via their sparkly new electronic devices, the head of the department (Go Kato) wants to develop a new kind of dictionary. The dictionary of his dreams, The Great Passage, will be Japan’s first to capture youth culture’s lexicon, embracing modern day mutilations of the Japanese language — slang words, modern expressions and acronyms — while skillfully providing the proper roots and definitions for words alongside the popular-yet-incorrect new meanings.
Dictionaries can take decades to develop, and before they commence this daunting task, the department’s longtime chief editor (Kaoru Kobayashi) wants to retire in order to care for his ailing wife. The problem is, in this trendy new world of technological innovation, no one wants to take on a boring, decade-spanning project like a dictionary — you might den see a photo of the Dictionary Editorial Department beside the definition of “uncool,” “nerdy” or “lame.”
Enter Majime (Ryûhei Matsuda), a socially awkward and frigidly shy young company employee who is currently mismatched in the Advertising Department. Armed with a degree in Linguistics and an unwavering love for language, Majime appears as the ideal candidate to take on the “modern living dictionary.”
As the baton is passed to Majime at work, the perspective of Yûya Ishii’s The Great Passage quickly shifts to follow Majime. We observe as a complete immersion into his work allows Majime to mature into a more confident person. Majime begins to develop an unlikely new friendship with a loud and obnoxious co-worker (Jô Odagiri) who slowly drags him out of his shell. It is not long before Majime even develops a romantic interest in his landlady’s granddaughter (Aoi Miyazaki), thus finally realizing the true meaning of love.
Time in the Dictionary Editorial Department passes excruciatingly slowly, so Ishii is forced to take significant leaps in the timeline. While this causes the narrative to feel disjointed and unstructured, it does allow for us to witness the changes in Majime’s persona over a longer period of time. Just as the purpose of the new dictionary is to allow its words the opportunity to establish a more natural dialog with readers, Majime learns how to use his internalized verbosity to express himself verbally.
It is not without bitter irony that a majority of press about Japan’s entry for 2013’s foreign-language Oscar will be consumed online. As the world continues to drift farther away from the printed word, Ishii’s The Great Passage preaches to us about the power of words on paper. Though their new dictionary will only capture a snapshot of an ever-[de]evolving language, there is an undeniable permanence to the printed and bound nature of its publication. For Majime, turning the pages of a book with the perfect paper stock is practically an orgasmic experience; the touch of the paper establishes an incomparable connection between the reader and the publication.